Biography – Mark Richards
Terms like “mellow,” “polite,” “calm,” or “mannerly.” always seem to accompany descriptions of Mark “MR” Richards, but to see him in full “wounded gull” mode unleashing on waves from 2-25 feet, one would be hard pressed to find a worse word to describe him. Innovator of the twin fin surfboard design, member of the Aussie class of ’75 who busted down the door and shattered every conceivable aspect of surfing at the time, and holder of no fewer than 4 world titles; Richards arrived on the scene at the right time and through talent and tenacity made the most of every second of one of surfing’s most tumultuous eras. MR is driven and talented, for sure. But mellow? Maybe on the beach, but in the water, he’s shown the world he’s a beast.
Born 1957 in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, Mark Richards was the only child of a surfer and used car salesman who, in 1961, opened the first surf shop in town. Subsequently, little Mark was soon riding waves by age six. With natural ability and a pure devotion to the sport, MR dove in head first. Inspired by the smooth and aggressive surfing of Nat Young, Richards improved quickly, performing well from the schoolboy and cadet divisions all the way to the juniors. He eventually placed second in the juniors division at the 1972 Australian national titles (behind winner Simon Anderson) and made the national team for the world contest in California. He placed second in the 1973 Australian Open division (behind Terry Fitzgerald) and won the national junior title (placing fourth the following year).
A few years prior, MR had picked up a second passion that would help define his legacy: shaping surfboards. At 13 he received an electric planer for Christmas and was shaping his own boards by 15. At that time, professional surfing did not exist. If you wanted to live the surfing life, you had to be a shaper: that was the dream. That electric planer would prove prophetic in that Richards would, eventually, not only push the edges of surfing performance but he would also alter the path of board design.
At 15, Richards took his first trip to Hawaii with shaper Geoff McCoy. But after a harrowing session at big Sunset, he boarded a plane a week later with a new found respect for the powerful waves of the North Shore. Undeterred by the experience, MR committed himself to not simply improving his big wave attack, but, doing it better than anyone else. For Richards, winter in Hawaii was now mandatory, and he quickly tuned into the rhythm of the waves and culture on the North Shore, helping him negotiate around much of the anger the Hawaiians aimed at visiting surfers. His “mellow” presence on land served him well as good karma rolled his way. In Bustin’ Down the Door, Richards writes about one such fortunate experience in 1974 when MR found himself with the possibility to fill a no-show slot for the Smirnoff Pro/Am (the implied world championship contest at the time). But with no money for the entry fee, he was poised to lose the chance of a lifetime. Fortunately, fellow Aussie, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew gave him the cash. The 18 year-old Richards surfed through heat after heat before being stopped in the semi final in closing out Waimea. Richards writes, “For the only time in my career, I was praying each time my name was read, hoping that I would come in last. When my name was finally called for fourth place, I breathed a huge sigh of relief – I didn’t have to go out and surf the final.” He returned the following year and won both the Smirnoff Pro at Waimea and World Cup at Sunset, earning $9000, a sum unheard of for surfers in that era.
Richards’ surfing style had matured into a strange but beautiful flow. At 6’1” and 175 pounds, his long lean frame looked nothing like the standard surfing athlete, but in the water, he flew across the wave with his arms outstretched and knees bent in. He drew long elegant lines which earned him the nickname, the “wounded gull.” Whether it was a backhanded nickname or not, he used his unorthodox approach to dominate large surf, but in small waves he found the single fins of the time held him back and set to task coming up with a new vehicle in gutless surf.
Amidst the chaos of the 1976 North Shore surf season, Richards retreated to the Chuns Reef shaping room of one Dick Brewer, who was royalty in the shaping world at that time. MR spent a month under the tutelage of the legendary craftsman where he developed his shaping technique and honed a new design that would change the direction of surfing in the coming years. The idea was based on a board ridden in Australia by Reno Abellira earlier that year, which was short and wide with two fins. MR lengthened the design and packed it for competition. MR would later term this board his “secret weapon” and directly credited it with his competitive success in his first world tour victory in 1979.
Surfers in Hawaii knew a change had come in how these brash Aussie and South African kids were recklessly attacking every inch of the waves, but the world hadn’t quite gotten the message until the 1977 release of Bill Delaney’s seminal surf film Free Ride. A new crop of surf stars including Richards, Shaun Tomson, Peter “PT” Townend, Ian Cairns and Rabbit were obviously surfing more radically than Hawaiian mainstays like Hakman, Lopez, and BK. They became known as the “Free Ride” generation. Free Ride linked films like The Hot Generation before which had introduced short boards and Nat Young to the world and Momentum decades later which exposed new performance levels.
Richards dominated professional surfing from 1979 to 1982, winning in both small and large surf and holding at bay one the greatest surfers never to win a title, Cheyne Horan. Horan placed second in 1979, 1981, and 1982. During this time, MR rode brightly colored boards and infamously paddled out in a silver wetsuit brandished with a Superman symbol. He may have declined to join the Bronzed Aussies, but he was not above using flash to get press.
Shortly after winning his fourth title, early back problems came to fruition and forced his “retirement” from pro surfing. True to his “mellow” nature, his retirement included winning the Billabong Pro in 1985 and 1986. The former event was held in both giant Waimea and throttling Sunset Beach. From 2000 to 2002, MR competed in the grandmasters division of the Quiksilver Masters Surfing Championship, eventually capturing what would become essentially his fifth world title with a win in 2001.
Richards was one of the first surfers to be inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame, was granted the Order of Australia medal, and was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame. After his record breaking title run in the 80’s, MR returned to his roots in Newcastle where he now runs the surf shop his father started and shapes surfboards.
Married with three children and living life in his home town, maybe, just maybe, Mark Richards has finally mellowed out. But probably not.